Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

On Being A Woman… Alone Part 2

From the short series, “A Failed Adventure”

As I continued on my search for woven blankets, I encountered a number of shopkeepers of various ages, demeanors, levels of devoutness, and English-speaking ability. When I returned for a second time to a shrunken hat salesman’s store to buy two more bright red costume fez in the biggest size available, the man grinned ear to ear, exclaiming, “I like you, American!” Seeking a gift for my 7-year-old cousin, I was dragged excitedly to the upstairs room of a dressmaker’s shop and filled to the brim with tea before being begged to try on a dress and offered it for no cost (which I refused, not wanting to exploit myself). In one of Hamidiyya’s plethora of scarf shops, I was rescued from a leering 20-something salesman by a grandfatherly man who picked up on my accent. “You are from America!” he said. “I got my PhD. in Pennsylvania. Where are you from?” As the words “New Hampshire” rolled off my tongue, he nearly jumped up and down with excitement. “You know it?” I asked, surprised. “I traveled in Vermont. I drove through New Hampshire!” he said proudly.

Only one thing remained constant: all the shopkeepers and their cohorts were men. And while the market was swarming with women in black gowns and hijab, many with entire faces covered under the niqab newly banned in public offices and universities, I realized none of these women were alone. They walked, whispering, arm-in-arm with mothers, sisters, friends, or children, under the anonymizing protection of the veil.

Conservative Muslim Dress at the Mosque

Having found and purchased my blankets (eight of them, in fact) from an elderly man who spoke not a word of English but managed to decipher my poor Arabic, I needed to head home to drop off my heavy load of gifts before continuing. I turned around in the middle of the souq and vowed to return that afternoon to experience the rest of it. As I passed through the market’s welcoming arches where vendors displayed ornate Qur’ans, prayer beads, and shawls, a younger man in a Tshirt and khaki shorts—the only pair I saw in Damascus—looked my way and said something indecipherable. I ignored him and continued walking toward home in hopes of keeping myself out of trouble. But after several minutes of walking through the independent handicraft vendors lining the streets behind the Grand Mosque, I felt like I was being followed. I pulled off to the side of the street where a table full of baby toys and shoes was on display and my fears were confirmed. The young man in the shorts pulled over, too, and stepped increasingly closer to me. I looked him squarely in the eye and said firmly, but quietly to avoid making a scene, “No. Halas.” But instead of backing off, a creepy smiled sprawled across his narrow face and he continued toward me, whispering something in Arabic I’m not sure I would have been able to understand even in full voice.

Now I had no choice but to use the people around me. So I repeated, in a louder voice this time, gesturing toward the man as I addressed the crowds with my eyes. “Halas! Laa! No!” He took a step back and looked at his feet, then, perhaps employing all of the English he knew, looked me in the face and muttered “beetch” before wheeling around on his heels and rushing in the opposite direction.

I walked home for lunch under the discomforting stares of Souq Al-Hamidiyya’s patrons, my bags now feeling a little heavier than before.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Did American political science miss the linguistic turn?

If you missed the Kevorkian Center's research workshop yesterday, you missed what I and a few of my colleagues considered the best one we've had since our time at the Kevo. The workshop featured Lisa Wedeen, a prominent political scientist at the University of Chicago and author of the highly esteemed work "Ambiguities of Domination."

During the workshop, Wedeen elaborated on the shortcomings of American political science in the modern Middle East, as well as on the problematic nature of the dominant methodologies in that discipline. She specifically targeted American political science's affinity for rational choice theory and its emphasis on quantitative analysis, drawing attention to the notion that these methodologies are embedded with normative claims that are rarely explicitly recognized as normative. This lack of self-reflexivity among political scientists betrays a wider lack of healthy skepticism in the discipline as a whole, including a reluctance to challenge the prevailing assumptions and normative claims that underlie these methodologies.

In her paper discussed at the workshop, Wedeen grapples with the "elective affinity" between liberalism and science, and how the coalescence of the two with the presumptive exigencies of US foreign policy have organized and reproduced our imaginings of politics in the Middle East. For instance, the prevailing liberal and scientific notions about the individual have given rise to "democracy experts" that have offered their services to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in post-war Iraq. Nevermind the fact that this notion of democracy and good governance is loaded with normative claims, and as such, is disembedded from the local context, history, and power relationships that govern the society in which it is implemented. It is not entirely surprising then that this ethos of procedural democracy appears to be stumbling in Iraq, as the political forces in that country currently try to navigate a deep constitutional crisis.

Another interesting point that was brought up concerns why the linguistic turn appears to have never really taken root in the discipline of political science. For example, why does the Rousseau-ian notion of culture as an explanatory device still seem to hold water in political science, despite the fact that this conceptualization of culture has been widely discredited in other disciplines?

One possible answer that was discussed deals with the political economy of status. Notable political scientists who may not be highly regarded in academia happen to wield formidable influence in the power corridors of Washington. The likes of Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis (though a historian), among others, have been very popular with certain government and think tank types despite the fact that their conceptualizations of culture places them in a discredited minority in academia. Nevertheless, this political economy of status tends to foster particular kinds of practices and intellectual thought which empower the individual political scientists that subscribe to them.

This political economy of status represents an impediment for a more intellectually honest discipline of American political science. It fosters a reluctance to recognize the problematic epistemological notions that underpin the discipline, and promotes the use of particular quantitative methodologies that masquerade as science.

How can this trend be reversed? Perhaps a greater emphasis on political ethnographies would be a step in the right direction. But as to whether or not it will have an impact on the political economy of status, one can only be pessimistic.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Feeling of Home

From the short series, “A Failed Adventure”

When ten o’clock struck, I stepped out of my house and back into the winding narrow streets of the Old City, determined to find the blankets I had spent the last 5 years dreaming about. I had with me, also, a list of names: people back home for whom I needed to buy gifts. From my apartment, I took the long route back to Souq Al-Hamidiyya so that I could walk by the section of the market where local handicrafts were made and sold.

After making a young shop boy’s day by purchasing 10 of the purses he was selling at 50 pounds (about a dollar) each, I found a small woodcraft shop and was invited—in English—inside. I was pleased to find a gentle older man, probably sixty, inside. He struck up conversation in almost entirely unaccented English about his collection of hand-enameled wooden jewelry boxes. I picked up a tiny red-lined box and held it up, marveling at the red and gold enameling. “I love this,” I said, “its so…” As I trailed off, he interrupted. “Yes, isn’t it cute?”

As I dropped my hand holding the box back down to waist level, the look of shock on my face must have been obvious, because the shopkeeper smiled. “You’re English is incredible,” I gushed. The word “cute”, especially when applied to an object, was a colloquialism I had never heard used outside the U.S. and Britain. “I have to ask, did you go to school in America or Europe?” He laughed with a wide, warm smile that made me feel almost at home. “I didn’t go to school at all,” he said. “But my family has owned this shop for 50 years. I have met many American and British tourists and I always tried to talk to them. More importantly, I always tried to listen to them.”

“And you,” he asked, “are you learning Arabic?” I told him about the class I was taking at the University, and my previous years of language studies in the U.S. “Let me offer you, if I may, some advice,” he said, as I handed him my crumpled Syrian pound notes. “Buy a Qur’an, in Arabic, and every day read 5 lines. Do not read more than that, you will be overwhelmed. And when you finish, you will speak Arabic and you can come back to Syria, and you will feel at home.”

I wanted to believe him as he shook my hand gently and warmly, in the western fashion, to bid me goodbye.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Some Thoughts on the CASA and ALI Programs

After having just returned from a summer spent in Cairo, studying at the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad (CASA) program, I figured I'd kick off the new semester with a few comments on the different Arabic language programs for American students in Cairo.

First, a few words on the CASA program. The application process is a lengthy and strenuous one (you have to sit for a challenging four hour Arabic exam on a Friday morning in February, and then have to conduct a 30 minute long telephone interview to test your oral proficiency). Fortunately, CASA moved back to the Tahrir campus this summer, after having spent two years out in the desert at the new AUC location. The word on the street was that too many CASA students were complaining about the three hours spent each day commuting back and forth to the new campus. Surely, this grueling commute coupled with the four hours of homework daily was too much for students to handle. However, unfortunately for the ALI students, the ALI program was not moved back to Tahrir in tandem with CASA, and the ALI students had to suffer the painfully long commute on a daily basis.

Second, I cannot overstate the quality of the CASA program. Classes are small, and the quality of the faculty is outstanding. Each student takes two courses every day: colloquial Egyptian Arabic and contemporary literary Arabic. The 'amiyya course focuses on everyday vocabulary that comes in quite handy, especially the frequent idioms that one hears and notices every day after having been exposed to them in class. The fusha course focuses on advanced media Arabic in addition to moderately complex literary forms. During the summer term we were assigned three novels to read, one of which being The Yacoubian Building. At the end of the semester, Ala' al-Aswany (the book's esteemed author and prominent critic of the Egyptian regime) came to the CASA program for some Q&A, which proved interesting. I get the feeling that he is a little more complex than his detractors make him out to be, but perhaps that's a topic for another post.

In short, I would recommend the CASA program whole-heartedly to any aspiring Arabic student out there who qualifies for it. ALI is an outstanding program as well for those who are still in the beginner-intermediate phase, but I'd definitely recommend finding funding from somewhere; the cost of ALI's summer tuition is through the roof. And given ALI's location out at the new campus in the desert (with very little shade, mind you), there are reasons to consider other less expensive programs. After all, I doubt that there will be much opportunity to practice your Arabic skills at the Chile's restaurant chain out there in New Cairo.